The Importance of Great Early Childhood Education in America’s Best Schools

Joseph F. Johnson Jr., Ph.D.

Frequently, when NCUSTJoseph F. Johnson Jr., Ph.D. identifies and awards outstanding elementary schools, those schools have amazing preschool programs. Children (and especially children of color) are more likely to succeed in the elementary school grades because of impressive foundations formed in preschool programs. Through excellent early childhood experiences, children learn they are celebrated, valued, and loved at school. Children find that adults see their brilliance and beauty in ways that lead them to see themselves as brilliant and beautiful. Parents and family caregivers learn that educators value them as long-term partners in helping their children flourish in school and in life. Even at three or four years of age, children begin to realize school provides a full set of keys that will allow them to unlock the joys of reading, the mysteries of science, and the power of mathematics. Unfortunately, many preschool programs do not afford children such positive experiences.

The National Survey of Children’s Health reported that approximately 50,000 children under age five are suspended each year and over 17,000 are expelled. Similarly, the Children’s Equity Project reported that preschool children are expelled at rates three times higher than children in K-12 settings. While preschool suspension and expulsion rates are appalling in general, young children of color are excluded from preschool at disproportionately high rates. At a time when children should be experiencing the joy and wonder of learning, too many young children are internalizing the message that they are not wanted at school. The negative messages associated with suspensions, push outs, and expulsions lead too many young children to decide they do not like school and they cannot trust the adults who work in schools.

Disrupting Disproportionate OutcomesRecently, California lawmakers passed legislation intended to severely limit the use of suspensions and expulsions in preschools. Furthermore, the California Department of Education published “Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color: Disrupting Disproportionate Outcomes.”  This book boldly addresses the importance of creating early childhood learning environments that embrace and support all children, and especially the groups of children who are most frequently excluded from preschool. Additionally, the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA) recently hosted a statewide conference that included a panel of state leaders who addressed the importance of this issue.

At NCUST, we have enjoyed opportunities to learn from outstanding schools where suspensions and expulsions of children of color are rare or non-existent. At 2023 America’s Best School Award-winning schools like Patrick Henry Preparatory School in East Harlem, NY; Danbrook Elementary in Anaheim, CA; Jess Harben Elementary in Richardson, TX; and The Caton School in Brooklyn, NY; children benefit from nurturing, loving preschool programs that set the tone for a positive learning experience through the elementary school years. In these schools, and in many previous NCUST award-winning schools, we find several components that combine to minimize behavioral issues and maximize that likelihood that all students (especially students of color) will succeed socially and academically. Specifically, in high-performing schools that minimize or eliminate suspensions and expulsions, we find:

  • Preschool educators structure time in ways that help them get to know and build relationships with both students and their families. By learning more about student needs and strengths, and by developing open communication with families, preschool personnel often can prevent behavior problems and often they can create experiences that help students succeed socially and academically.
  • Preschool educators build classroom cultures that celebrate children’s progress, growth, and success. Young children see themselves succeeding socially and academically because educators frequently highlight children’s positive attributes, behavior, and accomplishments. Young children see themselves as valued by their teachers.
  • Leaders expect preschool educators to create environments in which all children know they are loved. At the same time, school leaders support preschool educators in creating caring, loving learning environments. The preschool experience is specifically designed to help children learn to respect and value themselves and to respect and value each other.
  • Preschool experiences are designed to maximize the engagement of all children and all groups of children. The stories read, the problems discussed, and the activities utilized are selected, in part because they resonate with the backgrounds, interests, and cultures of the students served. Students perceive that learning is fun and exciting because teachers have designed experiences that are appropriately challenging and culturally responsive.
  • Leaders ensure that preschool educators are connected to in-school and community supports that some children and families may need. Leaders support preschool educators in using those connections proactively in ways that help ensure that children continue to experience success throughout preschool and elementary education.

By creating outstanding preschool programs in which all students experience joy, love, and success, schools can increase the likelihood that children will enjoy success throughout the elementary grades. Our 2023 America’s Best School Award winners demonstrate that excellent preschool education is part of the formula for ensuring excellent elementary education.

Concourse Village Elementary School
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